Wow. That title sounds a lot more ominous than I planned. No, I was thinking about “the worst” not in the sense of the impending global war between the zombies and the Lizard People (sorry, folks, but this Tuesday is gonna suck) but in the sense of the way we define quality in entertainment, which is after all a highly subjective thing. I recently picked up a book from dim and distant 1980 called, “The Worst TV Shows Ever”, by Bart Andrews and Brad Dunning, primarily because I’m utterly fascinated by failure, and it was interesting to me that in among shows like “Turn On” (a sketch comedy show notable for being canceled in some markets before the end of the first episode) and “My Mother the Car” were long-running hits like “Hee Haw”, which ran 21 seasons, and “Three’s Company”, which was one of ABC’s perennial draws.
So what does it mean when we say something is “the worst ever”? Can something really be “the worst” if tons of people love it? I’m reluctant to credit that idea, I’ll admit, even though there are certainly many times when I’m convinced that I’m right and the rest of the world is wrong about the quality of a TV show or movie. (**cough** Anything Adam Sandler’s ever done **cough**) We all do that, I think, but I like to believe that most of us don’t take ourselves seriously when we do. It’s one thing to be confident in your tastes and to be able to justify your opinions, but it’s another thing entirely to genuinely believe that the average person has terrible judgment and is incapable of appreciating quality entertainment. I feel like it shuts down discussion rather than opening it; if you decide that “Queen for a Day”, to take another example from the book, is nothing but wallowing in other people’s misery, then you won’t be able to understand what made it popular, and what continues to make successors from “Restaurant Impossible” to “Undercover Boss” work. (In all three cases, it’s about the imposition of a moral order onto the universe–good people who do not deserve to suffer are delivered from their suffering, giving the audience a comforting sense that reality works the way they hope it does.)
Taken to its ultimate extreme, this becomes “hipsterism”, the belief that anything popular must be bad because most people like it and we all know that most people have terrible taste. It can be incredibly exhausting dealing with someone like this; they refuse to believe that there can be any intersection between popular success and artistic success, and will reject their own previously established tastes rather than give up their prejudices about society. Ultimately, though, they’re only hurting themselves by ignoring fun and exciting entertainment.
The other type of “worst” is the commercial failure, which I’ll admit is what fascinates me (and what fascinates Nathan Rabin, who continually does yeoman’s work with his series of “My World of Flops” columns for the Onion AV Club that seeks out failures and dives headlong into what made them crash and burn). There’s certainly a lot of these in the book; variety shows by the likes of Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr that didn’t make it past thirteen weeks, and the aforementioned “Turn On”, which didn’t even make it to Episode Two and which you can’t even find on YouTube. (If I’m wrong on that, please link to it in the comments–I looked like crazy, and all I found was a 45-second clip.) By some standard, these have to be considered to be at least in the running for “the worst”, right?
Except that there’s more to failure than meets the eye, as well. Sometimes the same things that make something a flop can make it a cult classic as well; entertainment that challenges people and makes them uncomfortable can sometimes take a long time to find its audience. (‘Fight Club’, while it didn’t actually flop in theaters, still needed DVD to make its reputation.) Sometimes marketers can fail, sometimes internal politics can doom a project at a studio. Sometimes things just slip between the cracks. (Nathan Rabin calls these “secret successes”, efforts that worked creatively even as they got no box office.)
But I have to admit, my favorite kind of “worst” is always “best worst”, the kind of thing that Rabin labels as “fiascoes”. They’re terrible, and everyone knows it. They’re apocalyptically creatively misguided, generally disastrously bad. But you watch them in a sort of perverse fascination because they’re made with such conviction that you almost feel like if you just tuned your brain to the creators’ frequency, you’d suddenly be seeing a work of staggering genius. “Turn On” is kind of my holy grail for exactly that reason; I want to see it precisely because everyone agreed so instantly and thoroughly that it was a horrible mistake, but at the same time the same people put it on the air in the sure and certain belief they had a hit on their hands. I want to watch it because I want to understand the strange glamour that failure casts, maybe to avoid it or maybe to find a way to recast those ideas free of their flaws. After all, every good idea started as a bad first draft.
Or maybe I just like them. We’re all flawed, we all fail, but good things come out of that. Maybe I just like to remember that some of the most interesting things out there start out as mistakes…but they don’t have to stay that way.